nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
February 2, 2008
In a hotel room at the nearly deserted Palestine Hotel in Baghdad—where they feel safe because the hotel's not worth attacking anymore now that the foreigners have left it—two Iraqi men in their 30s meet. They've both signed in with false names; they both had absurdly epic journeys to travel a scant distance around Baghdad to get to the hotel, full of enemies potential and real. One of them, Laith, is trying desperately to leave Iraq right now after a series of threats on his life—from the Mahdi Army (Moqtada al-Sadr's militia), possibly from al Qaeda, possibly from the brother of a detainee whom Laith had tried and failed to help. The other, Adnan, is trying desperately not to leave, though he knows it's probably in his future, too, as he sometimes feels himself to be the "last person in Baghdad."
This is a story that we've become all too familiar with over the past five years, since the American army entered Iraq. But the difference here is, both these men were thrilled when the Americans invaded their country. Both worked as translators, interpreters, and political analysts for the American army and the American embassy. Both have spent the past years living a double life—pretending that they work somewhere else, hiding their embassy badges under the seats of their cars or in their shoes (or in the case of a female coworker, in her bra), leaving their jackets and ties at the embassy so they won't be seen in the streets dressed in a way that might give a clue as to where they work. Their coworkers have been assaulted, kidnapped, killed; their female coworkers are being constantly pressured to put on the hijab. Iraqis working at the embassy can't get a security clearance high enough to avoid waiting for hours on line in the street, in plain view—let alone an American visa. At the embassy, they're suspected of being spies for the insurgents because it's no longer possible to live in the "Red Zone" (i.e., any place outside the Green Zone) without knowing insurgents—neighbors, former schoolmates, former coworkers. In the streets, they're suspected of being spies for the Americans.
And yet, they still believe that the Americans came with good intentions; they still remember the hope they felt as Saddam fell; they still remember how hard they worked to get the jobs that now put their lives at risk daily. They still consider their American former boss, State Department official Bill Prescott, a friend and a fellow traveler—even though he left Iraq and clearly isn't coming back. And Prescott, for his part, still believes in the American mission in Baghdad, even if he can't bring himself to be a part of the daily decisions necessary to implement it.
This faith on all sides—misplaced? foolish? brave?—is what makes Betrayed more than polemical (though it's polemical, too). Any finger-pointing being done by playwright George Packer is at the short-sightedness of policy and policy-makers, not at the decisions made under pressure and in fear by those who implement those misguided policies; at the tendency of bureaucracy to harden around mistakes, rather than at the mistakes themselves. And even though Packer is sharply criticizing the policies that keep these Iraqis from getting security clearances that might keep them safe, or visas that allow them to leave, he's not creating straw men—we see how and why the policies happen, even as we desperately want other choices to be made. He's illuminating a gray area, here, showing us a set of Iraqis who are neither blindly pro-American nor resolutely against the occupation—they're idealists who've been overtaken by events. And watching those events overtake them—as we in the audience already know they will, they have, at the beginning of the story—is heart-breaking.
Pippin Parker's direction is brisk and straightforward—he lets the language and the generally strong ensemble of actors (especially Waleed Zuaiter, who embodies the play's central contradiction) do most of the work. Both Parker's staging and Garin Marschall's set and lighting are spare and simple; the only time either space or blocking gets complicated at all (tellingly enough) is in the security office, when characters are forced to take lie-detector tests. These are the moments when the Iraqis' idealism is most directly tested in a one-on-one setting, where they're required to give black-and-white answers to questions with a million shades of gray in them. It's unfortunate that Jeremy Beck, the actor playing the security officer, is the least nuanced performer here, and playing the least nuanced character—a little more subtlety in either and the play's distribution of sympathies might be even more complex.
Betrayed does occasionally slip into clumsiness. Packer's a journalist, not a playwright, by trade, and it sometimes shows, for good or for ill. Where his background is a strength is in his eye for detail, and the keen observations underlying characters and setting. The little details make it clear that Packer knows whereof he writes, and evoke atmosphere more strongly and effectively than any set could do:the power going out at dinner and the Americans being surprised while the Iraqis simply light candles and keep talking;the fluent but idiomatically slightly out-of-date English spoken by the Iraqis who learned it from watching American movies; the Americans' blank lack of knowledge of anything outside the Green Zone; the man who sells vegetables on the corner and knows everything going on in the neighborhood; the wry, mordant joking; the ubiquitous cell phones; and, most tragically, the plastic-sheeted bodies piling up in an overflowing city morgue. The downside is that he sometimes can't resist the tendency to contextualize, to overexplain from time to time. Ten years from now, an audience might need the information he's filling in, but right now, some of it feels like a distraction from the heart of the story, even when that context is emotionally powerful (as in the case of a series of letters Prescott receives from other Iraqis wanting his help to get out).
And it's the heart of the story that's so important—these characters may be fictional, but they're closely based on real people Packer interviewed for a New Yorker piece last spring. And if the play did nothing more than remind or inform us that real Iraqis are in this impossible situation, it would be important. With its richly drawn characters, it also packs an emotional punch.